- Migration in the Americas: context in brief
The region of the Americas (containing South, Central and North America as well as the Caribbean), is characterized by complex and dynamic mixed migration flows, both intraregional and extra-regional. The people transiting through the Americas include refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, short-term visitors and other people on the move. The drivers of migration and displacement are multi-faceted and include natural disasters, structural violence, poverty and inequality.
The information here focuses on the main migration routes and border crossings in the Americas where thousands of people are known to have lost their lives since IOM began monitoring migrant deaths and disappearances in 2014. People without the appropriate documentation according to the entry requirements of transit and destination countries migrate must irregularly, meaning that they often take hazardous routes and forms of transportation to avoid detection. Due to social, economic and security issues, people travelling irregularly through the region are exposed to exploitation, violence, extortion, human trafficking, sexual violence, kidnapping and forced recruitment into organised criminal groups.
Mesoamerican migration routes through Mexico
One of the best-known routes for irregular migration in the region is the Mesoamerican migration corridor, which runs through Central America to the United States. Once migrants arrive in Mexico, they generally follow one of six main routes: (1) the southeast route from Tenosique, Tabasco to Tierra Blanca, Veracruz; (2) the southwest route from Tapachula, Chiapas to Medias Aguas, Oaxaca; (3) the central route from Medias Aguas, Oaxaca to Querétaro; (4) the northeast route from Querétaro to Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila; (5) the north route from Querétaro to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua; and (6) the northwest route from Querétaro to Tijuana, Baja California.
Crossing the border between Mexico and the United States presents further and specific risks. The United States-Mexico border extends for 3,145 kilometres and traverses challenging terrains, ranging from urban areas to impenetrable deserts. Approximately 1,045 km of the border is guarded by a physical barrier, commonly known as the border wall, which separates both countries.Migrants crossing into the United States try to avoid detection (and deportation) by the US Border Patrol at the border itself, as well as within the “100-mile zone” that extends north into the United States and where there are also check-points.
The Darien region, also known as the Darien Gap, is a notoriously remote region of swampland and dense rainforest spanning 100 km of the border between Colombia and Panama. People who take this route originate mostly from countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, and hope to migrate northward to reach the U.S. They enter the continent through various South American countries which have relatively fewer visa restrictions than countries further north. When they reach the Darien Gap in northern Colombia, they continue their journeys trekking by foot through the jungle for five to eight days. When they emerge on the other side of the Darien Gap, already in Panama, they continue along the Mesoamerican migration corridor towards the US. Some people, who have the financial means to do so, try to circumvent a stretch of the Darien Gap by sea, disembarking from Capurganá, the last town in Colombia before the Panama border. This reduces their journey on foot on this route to a maximum of two or three days.
Irregular routes to and through the Caribbean
There are several maritime migration routes in the Caribbean, which, as with all overseas irregular crossings, are dangerous. Migrants taking these routes risk drowning in shipwrecks and becoming stranded at sea. One well-known route in the Caribbean extends from Cuba to the state of Florida in the United States. While this route is less used now than in previous decades, migrants continue to risk their lives while attempting the crossing, often in improvised unseaworthy vessels.
Another maritime migration route that has gained significance in the past few years connects the Caribbean Venezuelan coast with Caribbean islands. Since the beginning of the socio-political crisis in Venezuela around 2013, a maritime migration route has formed from the Caribbean Venezuelan coast – in particular, departing from ports such as Güiria and Falcón - to different Caribbean islands, including Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire, and in particular to Trinidad and Tobago (due to its geographical proximity). This route became more active in 2019 and is mostly used by Venezuelan migrants and refugees. The people who utilize this route face risks associated with unsafe boat journeys, shipwrecks as well as crimes including human trafficking.
Another common route in the Caribbean crosses the Mona Passage, a 130 km strait between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. This route is often used by Dominican, but also Venezuelan, Cuban and Haitian migrants. Migrants travelling on this route face serious risks of death, particularly if using unseaworthy vessels that may sink or capsize in the ocean.
Migration routes in South America
In South America, intra-regional migrants largely originate in Venezuela, the Andean countries (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia) and Paraguay and are destined mainly to Chile, Argentina and Brazil. Regional agreements in South America under the framework of the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) facilitate regular movement within the region and reduce migrants’ needs to take dangerous irregular journeys. However, parts of their journeys continue to be dangerous. In particular, the border zone between Colombia and Venezuela is especially hazardous for migrants crossing irregularly not only for the geographical features and natural barriers present in the area but due to the presence of organised crime and guerrilla groups. There is also northward mobility from South America, especially of extra-continental migrants, departing from Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, and Brazil towards the Darien Gap and onward to North America (as described above).
- Overview of migrant deaths in the Americas
Mesoamerican migration routes through Mexico
Over the past two decades, the border crossing between Mexico and the US has become the site of a grave human rights crisis, where thousands of people have gone missing and lost their lives during migration. From crossing the Sonoran Desert in the Southwestern U.S. and North-western Mexico, with its scorching heat and few water sources, to attempts to cross the deep Rio Grande / Río Bravo (demarcating the border between Mexico and Texas) and its often-strong currents, there are numerous physical and environmental factors which pose risks to people’s lives. Since it started recording in 2014, Missing Migrants Project has recorded the deaths of over 2,980 who have died trying to cross the border from Mexico in the United States.
The main direct causes of death identified in this area are drowning - mainly in the Rio Grande / Río Bravo and surrounding canals - and deaths caused by harsh environmental conditions and lack of shelter, food and water. Migrants may also be victims of vehicle accidents, falls from the border wall and due to the rough terrain, and violence. However, the cause of death is unknown in more than a third of recorded cases. Due the scarce human presence along the borderlands, the vastness of the territory and the inhospitable terrain, in many cases the remains of the deceased are found long after their death, when it is no longer possible to establish the cause of death. Tragically, the remains of many people are never recovered and their deaths remain invisible.
Migrants transiting through Mexico and Central America face common experiences of marginalization and vulnerability while travelling through irregular channels. Increased immigration enforcement and surveillance throughout Mexico have pushed people towards more clandestine and remote routes, devised in attempts to evade State checkpoints spread throughout the country’s interior. These routes often imply taking highly unsafe means of transport and walking through long stretches of desolate terrain where migrants often encounter systematic abuse, injury and extortion. Records collected by MMP indicate that many people die due to the hardships of the journey itself. The main recorded cause of death on migration routes through Central America is vehicle accidents, mostly related to the freight trains, which are used as a means of transport by migrants. Violence along the route - ranging from murder to physical abuse and sexual violence - is the second most common cause of death in the region, accounting for more than 10 per cent of recorded deaths and disappearances since 2014.
People on this route face deadly risks related to their transit through inhospitable topography and natural barriers characterized by large rivers, flash floods, dense foliage and wild animals. Many people have been known to suffer from dehydration, fatal falls and drowning, as well as violence, sexual and gender-based violence and kidnappings, associated with paramilitary and organized crime groups operating in the area.
Irregular routes to and through the Caribbean
Migration routes in the Caribbean have the second highest number of migrant deaths and disappearances recorded by the MMP in the region after the US-Mexico border, with 800 deaths recorded between 2014 and 2020. The main cause direct cause of death is drowning in shipwrecks, most of which have resulted in the deaths or disappearances of dozens of people.
Migration routes in South America
While the existence of more options for safe and legal mobility in South America reduces the need for dangerous irregular journeys, there are some routes where migrants face risks to their lives. The so-called "trochas" (Spanish for a narrow road or shortcut) on the borders of Colombia with Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador are dangerous informal border crossings. MMP has recorded multiple incidents of death and disappearance of migrants related to the presence of organised crime groups in these areas.
- Data collection and challenges
Collecting data on deaths and disappearances of migrants in the region is exceedingly challenging and there is a lack of available and accessible governmental or other official sources of information. The only official sources of information used by MMP are data provided by Mexican immigration authorities, as well as reports from county medical examiners, coroners and sheriffs' offices on the southern border of the United States. However, these data are fragmented and not easily accessible, and reporting is inconsistent.
Data collection is particularly complicated in Mexico and in the Darien Gap. The main sources of information on migrant deaths and disappearances within Mexico are local news outlets, which present information that is often incomplete or inaccurate. Likewise, there is a lack of information about incidents taking place in the Darien Gap. While migrants who have crossed the area as well as media and non-governmental organizations have reported the presence of hundreds of unidentified remains, due to the lack of official data, the area's inaccessibility, limited presence of non-governmental actors, and the lack of media attention, most migrant deaths and disappearances in the area remain unidentified or unverified.
Collecting information about migrants who die or disappear on maritime routes while attempting to migrate by boat in the Caribbean is also very challenging. The remote nature of maritime routes, the secrecy in which boats set out, and the lack of information on trajectories means that many shipwrecks carrying migrants are never identified. It is rarely known exactly how many people were on board boats that ran into trouble at sea, making it difficult to verify how many people went missing, or to know any information about their identities.
Finally, the dangerous nature of migrant trajectories through the region is not just influenced by the physical landscape but also by multiple and intersecting forms of structural and generalized community-level violence, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and organized crime, directed toward both migrants and non-migrants, which can result in death or disappearance. When such events take place during a persons’ migration journey, the victim may not be correctly identified as a migrant. Thus, adding to the complexity of documenting migrant deaths and disappearances.
These challenges mean that MMP records across the areas are likely to be biased towards high-profile incidents or specific geographical areas and are best considered as underestimates of the true number of lives lost during migration in the Americas.
Migrant deaths and disappearances in the Americas
Doering-White, J., A. Frank-Vitale and J. De Leon (2017) Central America in IOM’s Fatal Journeys Volume 3 Part 2 Improving Data on Missing Migrants.
Doretti, M., C. Osorno Solis and R. Daniell (2017) The Border Project: Towards a regional forensic mechanism for the identification of missing migrant in IOM’s Fatal Journeys Volume 3 Part 1 Improving Data on Missing Migrants.
Reineke, R. and C. Halstead (2017) Identifying dead migrants, examples from the United States–Mexico border in IOM’s Fatal Journeys Volume 3 Part 1 Improving Data on Missing Migrants.
Reineke, R. and D. Martinez (2014) Migrant Deaths in the Americas (United States and Mexico) in IOM’s Fatal Journeys Volume 1: Tracking Lives Lost during Migration .
Leutert, S., S. Lee and V. Rossi (2020) Migrant Deaths in South Texas .
Reineke, R. and Halstead, C. OIM (2017) “Identifying dead migrants, examples from the United States–Mexico border” in Fatal Journeys Volume 3 Part 1 Improving Data on Missing Migrants. IOM, Geneva.
Doretti, M., Osorno Solís, C. and Daniell, R. (2017) “The Border Project: Towards a regional forensic mechanism for the identification of missing migrants” in Fatal Journeys Volume 3 Part 1 Improving Data on Missing Migrants. IOM, Geneva.
Leutert, S., Lee, S. and Rossi, V. (2020) Migrant Deaths in South Texas . The University of Texas, Austin. OIM (2019)
Aldana, A. (2020) “La Trocha” in Universo Centro, Número 116.
Millán Valencia, A. (2020) “El infierno de cruzar el Tapón del Darién, la región más intransitable y peligrosa de América Latina (que corta en dos la ruta Panamericana)” in BBC Mundo Internacional.
Data on migration in the Americas more broadly
Migration Data Portal - Americas
IOM (2019) Migration Trends in Central America, North America and the Caribbean . San José.
REDLAC (2020) Violencia y Protección en el Norte de Centroamércia y México . NRC.
Morales Gamboa, A. (2014) Corredores migratorios y cambios en los medios de vida rurales en América Central . ALASUR, Costa Rica.
Yates, C. (2018 ) How Panama Became the Most Treacherous Crossing Point for Migrants on a Long Journey to the U.S. . Time, Capurganá.
Casey, N. (2019) She Was Duped and Shipped to a Brothel at 16. Then the Boat Sank . The New York Times, Chaguaramas.
Migration Data Portal: regional overview on South America